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Ian Hunter

Sharing a park bench with Canada's 'cunning man' Add to ...

Better late than never, the City of Toronto recently named a park after Canada's grandest man of letters, Robertson Davies. Davies, who died Dec. 2, 1995, at the age of 82, would approve, I am sure.

Born in Thamesville, Ont., in 1913, Davies was educated at Upper Canada College and Queen's University, before studying at Balliol College, Oxford. He began his varied career by acting at London's Old Vic Theatre, where he met his wife, Brenda, and formed a lasting friendship with director Tyrone Guthrie, whom Davies would later persuade to come to Stratford, Ont., to found the Shakespearean Festival. In 1940, Davies began a newspaper career that included editing the Peterborough Examiner and Saturday Night magazine. From the 1950s on, he wrote essays (including the acerbic diaries of his alter ego, Samuel Marchbanks), more than a dozen plays and several bestselling novels. The publication of Fifth Business in 1970 brought Davies worldwide acclaim and solidified his position as Canada's pre-eminent novelist. A fellow Canadian, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, called Davies "one of the most learned, amusing and otherwise accomplished novelists of our time and ... our century."

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From 1963 to 1981, Davies served as the first master of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

One theme that remains ambiguous in his work is religion. He was brought up in a Presbyterian home - indeed, Davies credited the Shorter Catechism with providing the "theological skeleton" of his fiction.

While at Oxford, he was confirmed in the Church of England. But in his art and life, Davies prized clarity, discipline, and order - qualities notably absent from Anglicanism.

Of course the Anglican Church was not always the amorphous goo that it is today, but nor was it ever very precise about just what it believed - one reason why so many of Davies's contemporaries, such as Graham Greene, T. S. Eliot and Malcolm Muggeridge, converted to Catholicism. It is unlikely that Davies seriously considered doing so. He once said: "You must find the church that suits you, that you can stand and that can stand you, and then stick with it."

To the central tenets of Christian belief, Davies sat lightly. He told his biographer, Judith Skelton Grant, that he did not accept that Jesus died to atone for the sins of man, nor that God would demand such a sacrifice, nor that humanity could thereby escape the inevitable consequences of their actions. In a 1986 interview, he said: "I think that civilization - life - has a different place for the intelligent people who try to pull us a little further out of the primal ooze than it has for the boobs who just trot along behind, dragging on the wheels. This sort of opinion has won me the reputation of being an elitist. Behold an elitist."

Yet Davies continued to see life "as a sort of lonely pilgrimage ... in search of God." He believed in prayer, though not in petitioning for divine favour; rather prayer for him was a kind waiting upon that which is unchanging and eternal. And unlike many "enlightened" Christians he believed in the malign presence and constant temptations of the devil.

What sheds most light on Davies' religion is his last novel, The Cunning Man, published just a year before his death. The story opens with the death of an elderly priest at the altar of the sort of high Anglican church that Davies favoured; the sort "that insists that it is a Catholic church in every sense except that it does not acknowledge the sovereignty of the Bishop of Rome." Part thriller, part comedy, part historical reconstruction of Toronto in the 1950s, The Cunning Man is also an extended meditation on the tension between science and religion.

In a sense, Robertson Davies was Canada's "cunning man," and I shall remember him whenever I sit in "his" park. The last words of his last novel perhaps best summarized his outlook: "This is the Great Theatre of Life. Admission is free but the taxation is mortal. You come when you can, and leave when you must. The show is continuous. Good Night."

 

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